Thursday, June 23, 2011

Yosemite National Park in Spring

Rainbow at the base of Lower Yosemite Falls.
I had planned this trip to Yosemite months in advance.  I targeted my visit for the first week in April to coincide with spring break for my daughter, but also to hit the flower show at their peak.  I spent a lot of time researching the area, referencing several different hiking and photography books, following Michael Frye's blog, (a personal favorite) and even exchanging some e-mails with Michael, who lives in the area. 

I had my itinerary set long before leaving, and was excited to return to this fabulous park.  What I didn't plan for was the crazy spring that mother nature had instore for us!

El Capitan reflected in snow melt pond.
Flowers?  We arrived at Upper Pines Campground to 2' of snow on the ground, and found the campground hosts offering shovels to campers to dig out tent spots!  This was going to be an interesting week indeed.

I spent my first evening checking out the views from Tunnel View.  The scene was made interesting with ample snow and some low level clouds, but the light never really materialized.  It would prove better during subsequent visits.

My first morning was spent at Sentinel Beach for sunrise.  Snowshoes would have been helpful in the deep, soft snow.  Fortunately the walk was fairly short.  After photographing  reflections of El Capitan in the Merced River, I found a small reflection pool in a side channel of the river, still mostly snow covered.  I would not be able to get to this location a couple days later.

Evening light on Half Dome.
Half Dome was the focus of my evening jaunts, and even daytime scouting trips. It's such a spectacular and prominent feature of the valley that I found it hard to notice much else as the sun began to go down.  There are many excellent locations to photograph Half Dome from in the valley.

The week spent in the valley was mostly sunny and warm and the snow melted fast.  However, evenings still remained quite cold, with temps dipping below freezing.  Our campground went into the shade early - around 3:30 or so, and became cold very fast.  The family quickly learned that tagging along with me on my evening photography ventures, where the sun stayed out as late as 7:00, was a much better option than freezing in camp! 

Upper Yosemite Falls
Upper Yosemite Falls is a head turner no matter where you are at in the valley it seems.  There were numerous vantages to photograph the upper falls from.  I photographed the falls mid-morning from Swinging Bridge and some nearby meadows.  But I think my favorite location was actually from the side of the road near Curry Village.  This vantage allows you to see more of the basin, which was still covered in snow during my visit.

Another excellent place to photograph the falls from is on trails from the opposite side of the valley.  However, snow prevented access to these during our visit.

In late afternoon, Bridalveil Fall became the waterfall attraction of choice, photographed from a road pullout in the valley, the TH parking lot and lower trail to the fall, and my favorite - Tunnel View.

Cathedral Spires reflection.
Another morning favorite was a tarn alongside the road that perfectly captured the reflection of Cathedral Spires.  I only spent one morning photographing here, but came away pretty happy with my results.

I found mid-morning to be the best time to photograph this reflection.  I arrived at first light, but found the scene most captivating with the shadows gone and everything fully lit by the sun.  I worked both horizontals and verticals with this scene - and liked them both.

Being alongside the road, I was never alone at any time here.  However I did not experience any compositional conflicts with other photographers.  It was an enjoyable morning to be out photographing in the valley, especially at such a serene setting.  The water held its reflection the entire morning.

El Capitan reflected in Merced River.
I returned to Sentinel Beach to find conditions much different from my previous visit.  Much snow had melted, making the gated road walk much easier.  It also entirely changed the physical characteristics of the beach itself.  The "snowmelt pond" that I had previously captured El Capitan's reflection in was now a deep channel of the river  itself, and was not still at all.  As a result, the river bar that I used to photograph reflections from was now inaccessible.

While I briefly had some company during my first visit to this beach (a couple I had actually met the evening prior at Tunnel View), I had it all to myself on my return visit.  However, I had better clouds and reflection opportunities during my first visit - just another reason why it is so beneficial to visit the same location multiple times to increase your chances of success.

Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View at sunset.
Tunnel View was an interesting location to shoot from.  I never shot from the viewpoint proper.  Instead, I followed the recommendation of Michael Frye's book, "The Photographer's Guide to Yosemite" (the definitive book on photographing Yosemite, in my opinion)and hiked a short ways up the trail to a prominent viewpoint.  Though I climbed the described amount of elevation, I never located the abandoned road his book mentioned.  However, I did still locate a viewpoint that I much preferred over that at the road.

I spent a few evenings at Tunnel View, and really only got decent light on my last visit.  I scouted Tunnel View almost every evening, however.  It was interesting to watch the crowds.  On clear, sunny days, evening crowds would be small with rarely a single DSLR present.  Throw some clouds in the afternoon sky and the heavy duty tripods would show up in force!  It was very easy to distinguish the professionals from the amatures, and easy to predict simply by looking towards the sky!

Half Dome reflected in a tarn.
On my last evening I stumbled upon my favorite location to photograph Half Dome thus far.  I pulled over to the roadside east of Yosemite Falls where I had seen numerous tripods set up each evening.  I prefer to include interesting forefronts in my compositions, so this location hadn't really caught my interest previously.  However, I didn't want to repeat locations on my last night; I wanted something new and different.

I set up my tripod roadside and pulled up a chair to wait for the special light to strike Half Dome's face, but was totally bored with the composition.  I noticed a foot path nearby heading out into the meadow and decided to go for a walk.  I found a nice reflection shot in a tarn with some interesting tufts of grass to put in the forefront.  Bingo!  I was in my happy place!  Unfortunately, the dramatic light I hoped for never came as a system was moving in and a cloud bank to the west blocked the sun's final rays.  So many things have to come together for that perfect image.  While we photographers control some of these, many we do not.

A coyote hunts in the snow-covered meadows near Curry Village.
A new system was forecast to dump 12 - 18" of new snow in the valley the next day, potentially closing the roads accessing (and more importantly, exiting) the park.  Temps were expected to dip into the low 20's.  Not wanting to be trapped, we packed up that morning and began our long, indirect drive home.  Even as we left, chains were required on both Highway 120 and 41.  These roads were closed a short time later.

We were blessed with a special sighting along the way however - a coyote hunting and successfully catching its morning breakfast in the meadows near Curry Village.  It was very fascinating to watch.

If you've liked the images appearing on this page, then you will be happy to know that you can view them and many more in my new Yosemite National Park gallery!

Some final comments about our visit:

Bicycles were an excellent way to get around in the valley.  I did much of my scouting during the day on bike, riding the entire valley loop on multiple occasions.  I highly recommend bringing them.

The shuttle buses offered an effective way to get around as well, but were much longer and restrictive.  They were also quite full during mid-day and seats were at a premium.  Understand they were still on their limited spring schedule during our visit.  I still believe they serve an excellent purpose and recommend using them - we did!

I had hoped to catch up with my friend and former Mount Rainier climbing ranger, Mike Gauthier during my visit.  Mike is now serving as Chief of Staff for Yosemite National Park.  Unfortunately for us, he was back up in our home state of Washington enjoying some down time during this particular week - next time, Gator!

1 comment:

  1. Wow, nice picture of the place. I sure did enjoy the nature in Yosemite National Park. Hope to come back to that place again..